Life on Hold for Egyptian Christian Arrested for his Faith


Unresolved charge of ‘defaming religion’ leaves him in perpetual limbo.

CAIRO, Egypt, December 16 (CDN) — An Egyptian who left Islam to become a Christian and consequently lost his wife, children and business is waiting to see if the government will now take away his freedom for “defaming” Islam.

Ashraf Thabet, 45, is charged with defaming a revealed religion, Article 98f of the Egyptian Penal Code. The charges stem from Thabet’s six-year search for spiritual meaning that eventually led him to become a Christian. During his search, he shared his doubts about Islam and told others what he was learning about Jesus Christ.

Local religious authorities, incensed at Thabet’s ideas, notified Egypt’s State Security Intelligence service (SSI), which arrested and charged him with defamation. If found guilty, Thabet would face up to five years in jail. But because prosecutors have made no move to try the case, Thabet lives in limbo and is subject to a regular barrage of death threats from people in his community in Port Said in northeast Egypt.

“I don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” Thabet said. “They’re making life hard for me. I can’t get back my computer. I can’t get back anything.”

 

Searching

Thabet said that before his search began he was a committed Muslim who did his best to observe its rules, including those for prayer and fasting.

“I wasn’t an extremist, but I was committed to praying and to reading the Quran,” Thabet said. “I went to the Hajj. I did the usual things. I followed the Quran for the most part.”

Despite his efforts, Thabet admitted that his understanding of God was based on fear and routine, nearly rote obedience.

“There was no spiritual relationship between myself and God,” he said. “In general I was always cautious about my relationship with God. I didn’t want to do anything wrong.”

Thabet started looking at Christian Web sites, but his real interest in Christianity began when he watched the film, “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.

“When I watched ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ I was very touched by Jesus’ story, and I wanted to read more about Him,” Thabet said. “So I asked a friend how I could know more about Jesus, and he told me, ‘The Bible.’”

His friend, a Christian Copt, did not get him a Bible until a month later because, Thabet thinks, he was afraid of being accused of proselytizing. Thabet began reading the Bible, which had a powerful impact on him, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

“I felt inside myself that these were the words of God,” he said. “The Bible tells people to give and to give out freely, so these words couldn’t be the words of a human being or a [mere] person, because human beings are inherently selfish.”

Thabet was also struck by the lives that the early followers of Jesus led, especially their willingness to lose everything, including their lives, for Christ.

The final factor that led Thabet to become a Christian came from Islam’s “Ninety-Nine Names of Allah,” attributes of God according to the Quran and tradition. In the names, God is called a “healer” a “resurrecter” and “just.”

“I started to compare all these characteristics with the characteristics of Jesus, and I saw that Jesus had a lot of the characteristics that God had, not only the human characteristics, being just and being kind, but there were similarities in the supernatural characteristics, like that He raised people from the dead,” he said. “In the Quran only God could raise people from the dead. I noticed that Jesus could raise people from the dead, and that He could heal people. Once I started to notice
the similarities between God and Jesus, I started believing that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Thabet said he cared about others “going the right way,” so he started having conversations with Muslim friends.

At first, people respected Thabet or tolerated what was seen as an awkward curiosity. But after he told his friends they were “only Muslim by inheritance,” they started to turn against him. They asked him what he was going to be if he wasn’t going to be a Muslim.

“I told them I started to read about Christianity, and I was starting to believe in it, and that’s when they brought the elders to talk to me,” he said.

The meeting didn’t go well. The Islamic leaders were unable to answer his questions and ended up yelling at him. Then they reported him to the SSI.

 

Arrest

The SSI summoned Thabet and questioned him on his doubts about Islam.

Thabet said by the time he was done with the interrogation, the SSI officer looked almost sick and told him not to talk to anyone else in Port Said about religion.

“I don’t encourage you to talk about these things with people or to open up these types of discussions, because it will just provoke people and make them angry,” the officer told him, according to Thabet.

Two days later, Thabet said, the SSI ordered him to report for more questioning, this time with an officer who specialized in religious issues and countering missionaries. The officer wanted to know what made him start to doubt Islam. He asked specific questions about what Web sites he had been on and what books he had read, and whether he had been baptized.

Thabet said that at the time of his questioning, he was still struggling with his new beliefs. Part of him wanted something that would restore his faith in Islam, so he went to Internet chat rooms for religious discussion.

“A part of me wanted to feel that I was wrong, that there was an answer to my questions,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would say ‘No, no, this is how it is,’ and that I would regain my trust back or not have any more doubts. But none of the people I talked to could answer me. They didn’t say anything to any effect.”

Thabet said he was always respectful, but Muslims found his questions provocative and became increasingly angry.

Eventually police came for Thabet. On March 22 at 3 a.m., he said, 11 officers from the SSI cut the power to his home, kicked down his front door and assaulted him in front of his crying wife and children.

Thabet quickly pulled away from the fight, once he realized they were officers from the SSI. The men swarmed over Thabet’s home, seizing his computer and every book and CD he owned. They took him to jail.

Authorities interrogated Thabet non-stop for 12 hours, took a break and then interrogated him for seven more, he said.

Initially he was held for 15 days. Then authorities ordered he be held for another 15 days. Then they extended it again. Thabet said he spent the entire time in solitary confinement, and he wasn’t informed of the “defamation of religion” charge against him until the end of 132 days in jail. He said he was not tortured, however, and that his interrogators and jailers were largely civil.

There was more hardship waiting for him at home. Muslim leaders in his neighborhood convinced his wife to divorce him and take his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.

“They gave her the money to file for a divorce, a car and another person to marry,” Thabet said, adding that the Muslim leaders had offered him money too if he would stay in Islam. “In the beginning they tried to bribe me to come back to Islam, but I refused.”

Thabet has only had a few brief moments with his children since he was arrested, mainly when his soon-to-be ex-wife came to their home to gather a few belongings. If she goes through with the divorce, according to Egyptian law it is likely Thabet will lose all parental rights to his children, including any right to see them.

In Egypt and most other Muslim-majority countries, leaving Islam is considered ample grounds for termination of parental rights. Thabet said the religious leaders consider him “lost to Islam” and are trying to “save” his wife and children.

He filed a report with police about the Muslim leaders bribing his wife – and about another man who swindled money from him – but police ignored both reports, he said.

Kamal Fahmi of Set My People Free to Worship Me, a group headquartered in Cairo dedicated to raising awareness about the problems faced by Muslims who become Christians, said that under Islam, “Muslim converts don’t have the right to exist.”

Arrests like Thabet’s are common in Egypt.

“It is a tactic used to intimidate people and scare them from leaving Islam and taking alternative beliefs or moral codes,” Fahmi said.

In Islam as it is most often practiced in Egypt, merely expressing doubt about Islam is considered wrong, Fahmi said. Questioning any of its claims is considered blasphemy and is punishable by imprisonment under a variety of charges in Egypt; it is punishable by death in some other countries.

“Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Muhammad,’ is considered defaming Islam,” Fahmi said. “Saying, ‘I don’t believe in Islam as it is not true,’ can lead to death [murder], as you are considered an apostate,” Fahmi said. “Even rejecting the Islamic moral codes can lead to the same thing. Criticizing any of the sharia [Islamic law] is considered blasphemy.”

 

The Future

Thabet said he is uncertain what the future holds. He was released on Aug. 1 but, because he has the defamation of religion charge over his head – with no indication of when the case could go to court – he is unable to work and cannot even obtain a driver’s license.

His savings are almost depleted, forcing him to borrow money from a Muslim friend. He is concerned about re-arrest and receives death threats on a regular basis. He is too afraid to leave his apartment on most days.

“There are a lot of phone threats,” Thabet said. Noting he had been baptized three years ago, he said he has received phone threats in which someone tells him, “We are going to baptize you again with blood.”

On numerous occasions while talking in Internet chat rooms, he has been told, “Look outside the window, we know where you are,” Thabet said.

In recent days Muslims are angry at converts and at Christians in general, he said. “They’re very worked up about religious issues.”

He said he wants to leave Egypt but admits that, at his age, it would be very hard to start over. And if he stays in Egypt, he said, at least he will have a chance to see his children, however brief those encounters may be.

Since Thabet was released from jail on Aug. 1, authorities have seized his passport and summoned him four times for questioning. He said he thinks the SSI is trying to wear him down.

“Everyone is telling me that they [the government] want to make my life hard,” he said. “The problem here in Egypt is the religious intolerance that is found in government ministries. The intolerance has reached a point where they can’t think straight. Their intolerance makes them unaware of their own intolerance.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith


Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.

ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.

By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.

Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.

“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”

Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.

“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”

Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.

“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”

Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.

Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.

The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.

Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.

In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.  

“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”

 

From Europe to Prison

Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.

In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.

Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.

“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”

In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.

During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”

The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.

Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.

“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”

Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.

“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Order Christians to Leave Village in Pakistan


Christians drew wrath by objecting to sexual assaults on girls and women.

KHANEWAL, Pakistan, June 7 (CDN) — The head of a Muslim village last week ordered 250 Christian families to leave their homes in Khanewal district, Punjab Province, local residents said.

Abdul Sattar Khan, head of village No. 123/10R, Katcha Khoh, and other area Muslim residents ordered the expulsions after Christian residents objected too strenuously to sexual assaults by Muslims on Christian girls and women, said a locally elected Christian official, Emmanuel Masih.

Most of the village’s Christian men work in the fields of Muslim land owners, while most of the Christian women and girls work as servants in the homes of Muslim families, said Rasheed Masih, a Christian in the village who added that the impoverished Christians were living in appalling conditions.

The Muslim employers have used their positions of power to routinely sexually assault the Christian women and girls, whose complaints grew so shrill that four Christian men – Emmanuel Masih, Rasheed Masih, his younger brother Shehzad Anjum and Yousaf Masih Khokhar – sternly confronted the Muslims, only to be told that all Christians were to leave the village at once.

“The Muslim villagers came to us with the expulsion order only after Christian women and girls raised a hue and cry when they became totally exasperated because they were sexually attacked or forced to commit adultery by Muslims on a daily basis,” said Khokhar, a Christian political leader.

Khokhar said the unanimous decision to compel the Christians to leave their homes and relocate them was possible because the Christians were completely subject to the Muslims’ power.

“The Muslims had been telling the Christian women and girls that if they denied them sex, they would kick them out of their native village,” Emmanuel Masih added.

Christians created the colony when they began settling in the area in about 1950, said Anjum. Since then the migration of Muslims to the area has left the Christians a minority among the 6,000 residents of the village, said Emmanuel Masih.

“There is no church building or any worship place for Christians, and neither is there any burial place for Christians,” Emmanuel Masih said.

He said that the Rev. Pervez Qaiser of village No. 231, the Rev. Frank Masih of village No. 133 and the Rev. Sharif Masih of village No. 36, Mian Channu, have been visiting the village on Sundays to lead services at the houses of the Christian villagers, who open their homes by turns.

Asked why they didn’t contact local Katcha Khoh police for help, Emmanuel Masih and Khokhar said that filing a complaint against Muslim village head Khan and other Muslims would only result in police registering false charges against them under Pakistan’s notorious “blasphemy” statutes.

“They might arrest us,” Khokhar said, “and the situation would be worse for the Christian villagers who are already living a deplorably pathetic life under the shadow of fear and death, as they [the Muslims] would not be in police lock-up or would be out on bail, due to their riches and influence, very soon.”

 

Couples Charged with ‘Blasphemy’

That very fate befell two Christian couples in Gulshan-e-Iqbal town, Karachi, who had approached police with complaints against Muslims for falsely accusing them of blasphemy.

On May 28, a judge directed Peer Ilahi Bakhsh (PIB) police to file charges of desecrating the Quran against Atiq Joseph and Qaiser William after a mob of armed Islamists went through their home’s garbage looking for pages of the Islamic scripture among clean-up debris (see “Pakistani Islamists Keep Two Newlywed Couples from Home,” May 27).

Additional District & Sessions Judge Karachi East (Sharqi) Judge Sadiq Hussein directed the PIB police station in Gulshan-e-Iqbal to file a case against Joseph and William, newlyweds who along with their wives had shared a rented home and are now in hiding. The judge acted on the application of Muslim Munir Ahmed.

Saleem Khurshid Khokhar, a Christian provincial legislator in Sindh, and Khalid Gill, head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance in Punjab, said that police were threatening and harassing relatives and close friends of Joseph and William to reveal their whereabouts.

Islamists armed with pistols and rifles had waited for the two Christian couples to return to their rented home on May 21, seeking to kill them after the couples complained to police that the radical Muslims had falsely accused them of desecrating the Quran.

The blasphemy laws include Section 295-A for injuring religious feelings, 295-B for defiling the Quran and 295-C for blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam – all of which have often been misused by fanatical Muslims to settle personal scores against Christians.

Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A, as well as for Section 295-B (defiling the Quran), is life imprisonment; for violating Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible.

In village 123/10R in Khanewal district, Anjum noted that it is only 22 kilometers (14 miles) from Shanti Nagar, where Muslims launched an attack on Christians in 1997 that burned hundreds of homes and 13 church buildings.

Yousaf Masih added, “Muslim villagers have made the life a hell for Christians at village 123/10R.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Relatives of Sudanese Christian Woman Pursue Her, Son


Native of Khartoum lives in seclusion in Egypt as brother, ex-husband hunt for her.

NAIROBI, Kenya, December 10 (CDN) — A Sudanese woman who fled to Egypt after converting from Islam to Christianity is living in secluded isolation as her angry family members try to track her down.

Howida Ali’s Muslim brother and her ex-husband began searching for her in Cairo earlier this year after a relative there reported her whereabouts to them. While there, her brother and ex-husband tried to seize her 10-year-old son from school.

“I’m afraid of my brother finding us,” said the 38-year-old Ali, who has moved to another area. “Their aim is to take us back to Sudan, and there they will force us to return to the Islamic faith or sentence us to death according to Islamic law.”

Ali said she divorced her husband, Esam El deen Ali, because of his drug addiction in 2001, before she converted to Christianity. She was living with her parents in Khartoum when she began seeing visions of Christ, she said.

“In 2004, I started to see a vision of Christ speaking to me,” she told Compass. “When I shared it with my friend, who is a Muslim, she said that she used to hear these things from Christians.”

This comment spurred her to seek out a Christian friend from southern Sudan, who told her about Jesus Christ and prayed with her.

“After that time, I begun to see more visions from Christ saying, ‘He is Christ the Good Shepherd,” she said.

Fearing that relatives might discover she was a Christian, in 2007 she escaped with her then-8-year-old son. Previously the family had tried to stop her from leaving on grounds that she should not travel unescorted by an adult male relative, and because they disapproved of her divorce.

“They destroyed my passport, but through the assistance of a Christian friend, I acquired a new passport and secretly left,” she told Compass by e-mail.

Her peace in Egypt was short-lived; earlier this year, while Ali secretly attended church as she stayed with a Muslim relative in Cairo, the relative found out about her conversion to Christianity and notified her brother and ex-husband in Sudan.

They arrived in Cairo in July. She had found lodging at All Saints’ Cathedral, an Episcopal church in Cairo that houses a refugee ministry, but as it became clear that her brother and ex-husband were searching for her, refugee ministry officials moved her and her son to an apartment.

Ali said her brother and ex-husband sought to kill her for apostasy, or leaving Islam – with the support of relatives back in Sudan and others in the community, members of the Shaingia tribe who practice a strict form of Islam.

“Life became very difficult for me,” she said.

The Rev. Emmanuel S. Bennsion of All Saints’ Cathedral confirmed that Ali’s ex-husband and brother were acting on a tip from one of Ali’s relatives when they came searching for her in Cairo. They went to her son’s school to take him back to Sudan. It was a Christian school, and the director refused to hand the boy over to them, Bennsion said.

“Since that time, she has started hiding and become afraid,” Bennsion told Compass.

Ali had received financial support from family in Sudan through the relative in Cairo who notified her family of her conversion; that support has since vanished.

Fearing forcible repatriation to Sudan, Ali tried to go to Israel; Egyptian authorities arrested her at the border and jailed her for two months. During that time, she said, her son was put in an Islamic children’s home. A Muslim family had adopted him, but she was able to win back custody after leaving jail in October.

“We have stopped going out of the apartment or even going to church,” she said. “My son can no longer go to school daily as before. We cannot live our lives as before. I cannot now participate in the Bible study or fellowships – I’m now depending only on myself for growing spiritually, and for prayer and Bible study.”

She said her only hope for living her faith openly in Christian community is to secure asylum to another country that guarantees religious freedom.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Australian missionary arrested in Andhra Pradesh State, India


An Australian missionary was arrested on false charges of “forceful conversion” by the Andhra Pradesh State Police on November 24, 2009 at Utnur in Andhra Pradesh state, India, reports James Varghese, special correspondent in India for ASSIST News Service.

According to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) the trouble erupted when at around 7.30 in the evening of the 24th, Paul Jemison (40), an Australian missionary accompanied by Joy Carol, daughter of a local Pastor Premanandam (50) had gone to an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) hostel campus for a movie screening for about 200 students.

The source reported that, as the movie ended at around 8.30 pm, Jemison shared about the "Love of Christ" to the students present. As he was sharing from the Word, a mob of 20 Hindu radicals suddenly barged into the event and accused him of indulging in “forceful conversion” and abused him for his foreign origin.

The source also said that the Hindu radicals then dragged him to the nearest Police station and filed a complaint against him of “forceful conversions to Christianity.”

Missionary Paul Jemison called the Australian embassy to check the possibilities to his quick release.

ANS has learned that he was detained in the station until late that night and later released.

The source said that Hindu radicals and Locals of the town have warned Pastor Premanandam and his daughter Joy Carol not to invite anymore foreign missionaries to the town.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Copts Grapple with Cause of Fire at Church in Egypt


Many in congregation doubt investigators’ hasty declaration of electrical mishap.

ISTANBUL, September 18 (CDN) — The congregation of a Coptic church that was destroyed by fire last week is divided over whether it was a case of arson.

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 8, a fire broke out in the rear of the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter near the main entrance of the building. Located in the town of Shebin al-Kom some 37 miles (60 kilometers) northwest of Cairo, the church building along with its icons, relics and most of its furniture was destroyed.

According to local media reports, investigators said the cause of the fire was electrical. A sizable portion of the congregation, however, disputes this.

Gamal Gerges, a local reporter who works for the newspaper Al-Youm al-Sabeh, said police have no proof that the fire was accidental.

“The police say it is an electric fire – the police say it is no criminal act,” Gerges said. “The police did not have evidence, but said what they did to avoid strife between the Christians and the Muslims.”

The priest of the church has declined to comment publicly on the cause of the fire, other than repeating what investigators have said. He said he is waiting for the official report to determine the cause of the fire.

One member of the congregation, a 25-year-old woman, is not so quiet. The woman, whose name has been withheld for her protection, said that the electrical system in the church was largely unscathed by the fire. She said the damage did not radiate from the church’s fuse box.

She said she believes the fire was set intentionally but did not suggest any possible culprits.

Through an interpreter, the Rev. Antonious Wagih told Compass that relations between the Coptic and Muslim communities in the area are amicable. Media reports indicate, however, that prior to the fire local Muslims were harassing priests, and that people who lived around the church dumped dirty water on the congregants from balconies. Other reports state that local women cheered after the church burned down.

Reasons for the discrepancies between Wagih’s statements and media reports were unclear. Wagih told Compass that he “did not want to [get] into a struggle or argument with the authorities.” He added that he wanted to “avoid any dispute in this area.”

Roughly 400 families attend Saint Paul and Saint Peter. The woman who claimed the fire was arson said many congregants shared her view. Other church members were not immediately available, but other media reports also indicated that she was not alone in her opinion.

No one was injured in the fire. At press time there was no monetary estimate of damages.

The Coptic community of Shebin al-Kom used the Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter for three years after they purchased the building from a group of Roman Catholics with a dwindling congregation.

The Shebin al-Kom fire was one of a spate of incidences reported by Coptic leaders during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Report from Compass Direct News 

More Pakistanis flee new offensive against Taliban


About 40,000 more Pakistanis are leaving their homes in South Waziristan as Pakistan’s military prepares to launch a new offensive against the Taliban, Reuters reports. They join over 2 million other people who have fled the violence since May, reports MNN.

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee is providing $500,000 of food aid for the refugees through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. It will deliver 708 metric tons of lentils, oil, fortified wheat flour, sugar, iodized salt, and chili powder to internally displaced person (IDP) camps in the Swabi district of North West Frontier Province, Pakistan.

Two thousand families, or about 14,000 people, live in the camps. CRWRC will give first priority to widows with children and to families who have lost loved ones.

CRWRC received a testimonial from Muhammad Akber Khan.

“I am a senior citizen and the oldest person in my family,” he said. “The continuous shelling compelled us to leave our native town and home. We left everything back home as we were given only 20-25 minutes to leave the town. All that we could have carried were the clothes that we were wearing at the time of migration. We want to go back to our homes as soon as possible as our lifetime investment is there; moreover, we have to supervise our crops that were the only sources of our livelihood. I am grateful to the staff of I-LAP and CRWRC who shared their love and care through giving.”

CRWRC has already distributed mosquito nets, sleeping mats, and water containers in the camps. Its International Disaster Response team responds to natural and man-made disasters all over the world, bringing relief and aid to those who need it most. It works in cooperation with local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in order to respond quickly and effectively to the urgent needs of a community.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

SUDAN: CONVERTS FROM ISLAM STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE


Christian woman run out of home – and beaten – while another is prohibited from leaving.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – When Halima Bubkier of Sinar town converted from Islam to Christianity last year, initially her husband accepted it without qualms.

“After watching the ‘Jesus Film,’ I felt I needed a change in my hopeless and meaningless life,” the 35-year-old mother of three told Compass. “I lived a life of alcoholism and lacked self control, hence tried Christianity and it worked well for me. I shared this experience with my husband, and he was quite positive about it and allowed me to attend church services.”

News of her conversion spread quickly, she said, and last Sept. 14 she came face to face with Islamic hardliners who felt her conversion to Christianity was an act of betrayal. A few weeks later, during the daily fasts and nightly feasts of Ramadan in Sinar, near Khartoum, the Islamists blocked her husband from the communal meals because of her change in faith.

“My husband was totally rejected by his colleagues,” she said. “They even refused to eat the food that I had cooked for him, saying that Muslims could not eat food cooked by infidels.”

Bubkier said she never expected her change in faith would lead to the ordeal that followed.

“He was so angry that he threw an armchair at me and injured my back,” she said. “As if this was not enough, he took out all his belongings from the house then set the house on fire. After I lost all my belongings, he then chased me away.”

She decided to run for refuge to her older brother, Nur Bubkier – who, having been informed of her conversion, responded by thoroughly beating her and trying to knife her.

Two Christians from the Sudanese Church of Christ, Maria Mohamud and a church deacon, managed to rescue her from the violence, but Halima Bubkier was jailed for three days at a police station, she said, on the false charge of “disrespecting Islam.” During that time Mohamud took care of her 2-year-old baby.

After three days in jail, she was waiting to appear before a judge.

“Before my case was heard, a Coptic priest [identified only as Sheed] knew of my case and talked with a police officer, privately telling him that according to the law, no one is supposed to be jailed because of religion,” Bubkier told Compass. “I was then freed.”

Bubkier left her two children, ages 6 and 8, behind with her husband, who is said to have married another woman. She said that although her main concern is the safety of her children, at least she is in hiding and her husband does not know her whereabouts.

“I expected my husband to appreciate my positive change, but instead he responded negatively,” Bubkier said. “Indeed there is something wrong with Islam where good is rewarded with evil. But I feel normal. Now I have a better life to live for. I was lost and in darkness. Let God forgive all those who have wronged me. I know I cannot go back.”

 

Home Prison

In Sahafa, five kilometers (three miles) south of Khartoum, another woman who left Islam is under a kind of house arrest by her family members for converting to Christianity.

Senah Abdulfatah Altyab was formerly a student of laboratory science at Sudan University of Technology, but today she is out of touch with the outside world. Her education came to an end after a film about Christ led to her conversion.

A close friend of Altyab, Ebtehaj Alsanosi Altejani Mostafh, said Altyab’s family closely monitors her.

“She cannot receive calls,” Mostafh said. “Her brother forbids her from moving outside the homestead or even attending [St. Peter and Paul Catholic] church” in Amarat, Khartoum.

Last Christmas, Mostafh said, she met Altyab near a public market during an Islamic celebration day, prayed with her and advised her that she should present her case to a commission dedicated to guarding the rights of non-Muslims. The Commission for the Rights of Non-Muslims in the National Capital, created by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 following Sudan’s long civil war, was designed to advise courts on how to fairly apply sharia (Islamic law) to non-Muslims.

Made up of representatives from Muslim, Christian and traditional religious groups, the commission “made little headway in changing official government policy towards non-Muslims in Khartoum,” according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report, though it did obtain release or leniency for some non-Muslims accused of violating sharia.

Altyab said she feels the commission would do little for her case because most of its members are radical Muslims. Moreover, she said her uncle, Yusuf Alkoda, is a radical Muslim and will make her life more difficult.

“I find life very difficult,” Altyab said. “I feel lonely and isolated. How long will I have to live in this state? Life without education is miserable.”

Sudan’s 2005 Interim National Constitution provides for freedom of religion throughout the entire country, but Altyab said that stipulation is brazenly flouted. The constitution enshrines sharia as a key source of legislation in northern Sudan.

The 29-year-old Mostafh, for her part, said she converted from Islam to Christianity in 2005 and as a result was immediately fired from her job. She later obtained another job. A member of All Saints Cathedral Church in Khartoum, she told Compass that since her conversion, she has suffered total isolation from her Muslim friends. During communal celebrations, she said, she is looked down upon and seen as a lady lost and destined for hell.

“Life is very difficult for me for the last four years, since joining Christianity,” she said. “I have been living all alone in the rental house here at the Evangelical Presbyterian Church-Borri, which is something unusual for a Muslim lady who is unmarried. My former friends are saying that there must be something wrong with me.”

Her immediate family lives in Saudi Arabia. Her only chance of seeing them, she said, is to go on the Islamic pilgrimage or hajj, and that option is now closed.

“My big challenge is how I can be accepted by my family members,” she said. “For me to go to Saudi Arabia, pilgrimage is the only opportunity, but this is not relevant for me as a Christian.”

The many instances of Christians suffering in northern Sudan go largely unreported. The president of the Sudanese Church of Christ, Barnabas Maitias, told Compass of one church member, a convert from Islam identified only as Ahmed, who received Christ in April 2007 – and quickly had his wife and children taken away.

Hard-line Muslims also planned to kill the convert, Maitias said.

“The church had to take him to another location in the Nuba Mountains, Korarak area, where he is employed as driver,” Maitias noted. “Most of the churches in Khartoum are housing Muslim converts who have no place to stay or get their daily basic needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News

IRAN: TWO CHRISTIAN WOMEN IMPRISONED


Held with no legal counsel for over a month, they suffer illness in notorious prison.

LOS ANGELES, April 13 (Compass Direct News) – Accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” two Iranian Christian women have been held in a Tehran prison for over a month in a crowded cell with no access to legal representation.

Amnesty International, in an appeal for urgent action last week, reported that authorities have made the accusations known but have imprisoned the women without filing official charges. The organization called on Iranian authorities to release them and expressed concern for their health.

Maryam Rostampour, 27, and Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad, 30, who were active in church activities and distributing Bibles according to Amnesty’s appeal, were arrested on March 5. They are being held in the detention center of Evin Prison, a facility that has drawn criticism for its human rights violations and executions in recent years. Amnesty’s appeal included a call to urge Iranian officials to ensure that the women are not being tortured.

Based on a telephone conversation between Esmaeilabad and a third party on March 28, Amnesty reported that Esmaeilabad said both are suffering from infection and high fever and had not received adequate medical care. The women continue to be detained in an overcrowded cell with 27 other women. Amnesty said they “may be prisoners of conscience, detained solely on account of their religious beliefs.”

The women are allowed a one-minute call each day and a weekly visit from family. Authorities have informed their family members that the women are accused of “acting against state security” and “taking part in illegal gatherings,” according to the report, and that they would be released after payment of a $400,000 bail. The families have presented the title deeds of their homes as bail but are still waiting for approval from the judge.

Initially the Ministry of Intelligence summoned one of the women, and then took her to the apartment the two shared. There they were officially arrested, and authorities confiscated computers, books and Bibles. The two women were interrogated and held at different police stations.

On March 18 they appeared before Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran and subsequently transferred to Evin Prison, said the report.

Even if the women are released on bail, they still have to stand trial. Accusations have not included “apostasy,” or leaving Islam, though investigations are ongoing. It is not known whether the women are converts from Islam.

Last September the Iranian Parliament approved review of a new penal code calling for a mandatory death sentence for “apostates.” Under current law death sentences for apostasy have been issued only under judicial interpretations of sharia (Islamic law).

Under the new penal code, male “apostates” would be executed, while females would receive life sentences. The new code was sent to Iran’s most influential body, the Guardian Council, which is expected to rule on it. The council is made up of six conservative theologians appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament. This council has the power to veto any bill it deems inconsistent with the constitution and Islamic law.

Converts to Christianity in Iran risk harassment, arrest and attack from authorities even though Article 23 of the Iranian Constitution grants that individual beliefs are private and no one can be “molested or taken to task” for holding them. Iran has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” the covenant states.

The last Iranian Christian convert from Islam executed by the Iranian government was Hossein Soodmand in 1990. He was accused of working as “an American spy.” Since then at least six Protestant pastors have been assassinated by unknown killers.

Report from Compass Direct News